Sweeney aims to fill A's needs

Sweeney aims to fill A's needs

PHOENIX -- Mike Sweeney roared into the A's clubhouse on Sunday with his usual good cheer and aplomb. Waving his bandaged forearm at a group of younger teammates, Sweeney deadpanned that another player "would be in getting X-rays right now."

Not Sweeney. Not now.

The veteran first baseman and designated hitter is having the Spring Training of his life just trying to make the A's these days after 13 seasons as the centerpiece of the Royals.

"It's quite different this year being a non-roster guy, really fighting for a spot," Sweeney told MLB.com only hours before the A's played the defending National League champion Rockies in a Cactus League game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. "But I'm still going to approach the game the way I've always approached it. Play hard. Be a leader. Be an example. Be an encourager."

And so, there was a method to his madness. Sweeney was hit on the meat of that forearm with a pitch from Giants right-hander Victor Santos during the sixth inning of Saturday's 23-5 Oakland victory at Scottsdale Stadium. He was immediately replaced by a pinch-runner, but on Sunday he chose to show his teammates how to shake it off.

"It could be worse," Sweeney said. "I'll be alright."

Sweeney wasn't in the lineup on Sunday, but so far he's been better than alright. In two games he's 4-for-8 (.500) with a double and four RBIs. Two of the hits -- a double and single -- and three of the RBIs came during the first inning on Saturday as the A's chased old friend Barry Zito.

Zito didn't make it out of the first inning, allowing eight runs, seven hits and nine of the 11 batters he faced to reach base safely.

Two games does not a spring make, but the A's are desperate for a veteran presence on the bench and Sweeney, at 34, would definitely fill that role.

"He's already been a great influence on the young players," second-year A's manager Bob Geren said. "The way he plays is catching on. He can hit a fly ball to center and almost be on second. He's a good leader. He really is. It's only been two games, but so far, he's been great. I'm really happy for him."

Because of back and knee injuries, Sweeney played in only 134 games during the past two seasons, but he's always been productive when healthy. He's a career .299 hitter with a .369 on-base percentage and a .492 slugging percentage. Last season, he batted .260 with seven homers and 38 RBIs in 265 at-bats.

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His veteran presence and the promise of Sweeney returning to form were the main reasons why Oakland signed him to a Minor League make-good contract on Feb. 10, just days before camp opened.

In his own cosmic style, Sweeney showed up at A's camp across the way in Papago Park with the pitchers and catchers on Feb. 14, nearly a week before the position players were scheduled to report.

The extra swings in the batting cage provided the foundation for his fast start when the games began this past Thursday.

"The whole thing with me now is just staying healthy," Sweeney said. "And right now, I feel great. If I can continue that and leave the last two years behind me that wouldn't be too bad."

Largely because of injuries, the A's are going through a youth movement with only shortstop Bobby Crosby and second baseman Mark Ellis assured of giving the club a veteran presence in the starting lineup. Third baseman Eric Chavez, out now for five days after taking an epidural in his back, may not be there when the Opening Day bell rings.

Thus, they could use Sweeney's influence more than ever.

"That's how I've always been. That's how I'll always be until someone rips the jersey off my back," Sweeney said about his leadership characteristics. "I think we can surprise a lot of people here in Oakland."

Of course, he knows there are no guarantees. The A's break camp on March 19, and head to Japan to open the season against the defending World Series champion Red Sox, March 25-26. That leaves a little less than three weeks for Sweeney to prove that he's a keeper.

But his attitude is positive, he said. And hanging above his locker just to prove it are the "Optimist's Creed" and a tiny silver-tandem bicycle hanging from a red ribbon. Sweeney says he just sits there on the back seat pedaling, while God and destiny sit in the front seat and set the direction.

"I'll leave [my chances of making the team] up to the guys in the front office," he said. "I just play baseball. If I'm healthy and I play the game the way I know I can, then at the end of the day, something good will happen."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.